Motorcycle racing would be a good deal less complicated if it was an indoor sport. Leaving the complications of housing an area covering several square kilometers to one side for a moment, having a track which was not subject to rain, wind or shine would make things a lot more predictable. No longer would the riders and teams have to worry about whether the track was wet enough for rain tires, or slicks could be used with a dry line forming. Nor would they have to worry about track grip dropping as temperatures rose beyond a certain point. Or differences in grip from one part of the track to the next, as clouds hide the sun and strong winds steal heat from the asphalt. There would be only the bike, the rider, and the track.
Racing would be a lot less interesting, though. Saturday at Le Mans was a case in point. On Friday, it looked like the races were all pretty much wrapped up: Jorge Lorenzo was unstoppable in MotoGP, Tito Rabat was back to his best in Moto2, and Danny Kent was imperious in Moto3. Cold temperatures in the morning and rain at the start of the afternoon threw a spanner in the works for almost everyone. All of a sudden, things look a lot more complicated. And rather intriguing.
The Moto3 class were the hardest hit. The skies were pregnant with rain before qualifying started, with only very light drizzle falling. Within two minutes of the green light going on, the drizzle was heavier, and the track went from being a little slow to being downright treacherous. Fabio Quartararo got it right: first out of the pits, he took pole with his first flying lap. Then he got it wrong: he was nearly two seconds slower on his next lap, then found himself tumbling through the gravel at Turn 1, the quickest corner on the circuit. He wasn't the only one, being joined in the gravel by his teammate Jorge Navarro, while on the other side of the track, Brad Binder had crashed out. The men and women of Moto3 had had enough: they filed back into the pits as the track went from damp to wet, only a few brave souls venturing out in the second half of qualifying, circulating fifteen or more seconds off pole pace.
Going out first turned out to be the key. The riders who waited for the lights to go green at the end of pit lane fill the front of the grid, those who let the pack escape first, then followed at a leisurely pace in pursuit of an empty track are all well down the order. Quartararo, Navarro, Pecco Bagnaia, Romano Fenati fill the front rows, Danny Kent and Efren Vazquez bring up the rear. It was, said Kent, a 'terrible mistake', after dominating in free practice. It was an understandable one, though, as normally, the Leopard Racing team's tactics would have bought Kent and Vazquez free space in which to set out the pace. A normally smart move backfired this time, due to the weather.
Qualifying confirmed what we had already seen on Friday: the old Jorge Lorenzo is back. The Movistar Yamaha rider was fastest in FP1 and FP2 yesterday. He was fastest in FP3 in the cool of Saturday morning, and he was quick in the heat of FP4. He wasn't fastest in the one session of truly free practice for the MotoGP class – Andrea Iannone put in a quick lap on the Ducati, proving once again that the GP15 is an outstanding motorcycle – but he posted five laps faster than Iannone's second-quickest lap. Then, during qualifying, he set a pace which no one could follow. Using a three-stop strategy, copied shamelessly from Marc Márquez last, Lorenzo posted a 1'38.2 on his second rear tire, then became the first man to lap the Jerez circuit in less than 1'38, stopping the clock at 1'37.910.
That is a mind-bendingly fast lap. Especially given the conditions. Set in the middle of the afternoon, in the blistering heat: air temperatures of over 30°, and track temps of nearly 50°. Set on a track which is notoriously greasy when it's hot, offering the worst grip of the year, especially now that Misano has been resurfaced. Set on asphalt that was laid eleven years ago, and has been used very intensively ever since. If there was ever a time and a place to break the pole record at Jerez, Saturday afternoon was not it. Nobody told Jorge Lorenzo, though.
Lorenzo is not just fast over a single lap, but has consistently run a faster race pace than anyone else has looked capable of managing. He is looking very much like the Lorenzo of old: fast, smooth, utterly consistent, unstoppable. If he gets a good start, it is hard to see who could stay with him for 27 laps. He told the press conference he will be trying to escape on the first lap. It looks like that will be the last the rest of the field see of him.
Data – the reams of information logged by a vast array of sensors on a racing motorcycle – is a contentious issue in MotoGP. Riders differ in their approach to it. Mika Kallio, for example, has a reputation for being a demon for data, wading through his own data after every session. Other riders pay less attention, preferring to let their data engineers, sort the data out from them, and examine their data together.
Sam Lowes is one of the latter. In the long conversation which we had with him at Austin – see yesterday's installment on the 2015 Speed Up here – Lowes discussed the role of data, and his use of it, at length. Though all of the riders using the Speed Up chassis have access to each other's data (it is common practice for all manufacturers to share data among their riders), Lowes sees little use in looking at the data of other riders.
"I've never looked at other people's data," Lowes told the small group of journalists who spoke to him on the Thursday before the race at Austin . "I've never looked at anyone's. Just because, well, it's not a motorbike is it? I look at my data with my guys, but I wouldn't look at anyone else's. Maybe if Márquez was set next to me I'd have a quick glance over …" he joked.
Lowes did not believe that the data from other Speed Up riders would be of much use to him. "Not taking anything away from Julian Simon and Ant West, but if they're quicker than me here, I won't go look at their data."
Sam Lowes is a rider on the move. After impressing in both BSB and World Supersport, the Englishman made the switch to Moto2 in 2014, joining Speed Up to race the bike designed and built by the team run by Luca Boscoscuro. His first season in Moto2 was much tougher than expected, Lowes crashing often and never getting close to a podium, despite often showing good pace in practice in qualifying.
His 2015 season has gotten off to a much better start. Lowes has been fastest in both testing and practice, and with Johann Zarco, Tito Rabat and Alex Rins, has shown himself to be a true title contender for this year. A win at Austin confirmed that, as has a podium in Argentina and pole position at Qatar. On the Thursday before the Texas round of MotoGP at Austin, a small group of reporters had a long and fascinating conversation with Lowes, in which he covered a lot of territory, ranging from finding confidence when riding in the rain, to how the Speed Up bike has changed, to the value of looking at the data of other riders. Over the next couple of days, we will share some of that conversation with you.
One of the biggest changes in Sam Lowes' fortunes came as a result of a change to the bike. The carbon fiber swing arm which Speed Up have been running since they first starting building their own bikes back in 2012, and is a legacy of Boscoscuro's days working with Aprilia, has been replaced with a more conventional one made from aluminum. That switch had made a huge difference to the feel of the bike, giving Lowes and the other Speed Up riders much more feel for the rear tire of the Speed Up, and putting an end to a string of inexplicable crashes.
Eight years. That's how long it has been since a Suzuki last led two consecutive sessions in the dry. It was 2007, at Shanghai, when John Hopkins topped both FP2 and FP3 on the Suzuki GSV-R. Suzuki had a great year in 2007, spending the previous year developing the GSV-R ready for the start of the 800cc class. John Hopkins and Chris Vermeulen amassed one win (in the wet), seven podiums and a pole position that season, including a double podium at Misano. That Suzuki was a great bike, but sadly, it was the last time a Suzuki was truly competitive. It was pretty much all downhill from there.
Until today. Aleix Espargaro was fastest in the morning session at the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit, but we put that down to the conditions. The track was still very dusty in the morning, turning the standings upside down. Marc Márquez was tenth fastest, behind Mike Di Meglio and Jack Miller, while Valentino Rossi was fourteenth and Jorge Lorenzo twentieth. It was a fluke, we thought.
From Austin, MotoGP heads south, to the most expensive GP of the season. The Termas de Rio Hondo circuit lies in one of the poorest regions of Argentina, but the economic reality is not reflected in the prices around the Grand Prix weekend. The cost of renting a compact car from one of the nearby airports would get you a luxury vehicle at any other place. Room rate cards for even the most modest hotel look like they have been borrowed from Claridges for the week. Local businesses appear bent on extracting as much revenue as possible from the poor souls who have no choice but to attend, such as journalists, team staff and riders. Those (such as your humble correspondent) without a wealthy employer to cover the costs for them stay away. Many teams stay up to a couple of hours away, where accommodation prices drop from the truly extortionate to the merely pricey. For much of the paddock, the Termas de Rio Hondo GP is a black hole, capable of swallowing money at an exponential rate.
Yet fans from around the region flock to the circuit. They are much smarter indeed, many bringing tents, vans, RVs, or even just sleeping bags in the back of their trucks. The money saved on accommodation is well spent: the party around the circuit is stupendous, massive amounts of meat and drink being shared around all weekend. That adds real local flavor to the event, the passion of the fans being evident at every turn.
One of the hottest topics of conversation at Austin revolved around two men who were not there. One, Dani Pedrosa, is out after having had radical surgery to try to fix arm pump. The other was a man who would have liked to have ridden, but whom fate, or HRC, decided against. Casey Stoner made it clear in a tweet on Thursday that he would have liked to have ridden, and that he did not feel he needed protecting.
The back story? It seems that it was actually Casey Stoner's idea to ride at Austin, to replace Dani Pedrosa, but HRC rejected the idea. HRC, having seen Stoner's test times – rumored to be well over a second off the pace of Márquez and Pedrosa at Sepang – feared that the Australian would not be competitive at the two races Pedrosa is certain to miss. HRC top brass, especially Livio Suppo and Shuhei Nakamoto, have a soft spot for Casey Stoner, and apparently feared the effect which struggling to finish ahead of the satellite riders could have had upon the Australian. In the tweet he posted on Thursday evening (shown below), Stoner made it clear that he had entirely realistic expectations of how replacing Pedrosa may have turned out.
Bummer I'm not racing, no prep was needed as I wasn't planning on winning, just replacing a good friend and having some fun in Texas!:)— Casey Stoner (@Official_CS27) April 9, 2015
What does this mean? It seems safe to infer that Casey Stoner will be back on a MotoGP bike sooner rather than later. A full-time return remains entirely improbable, but a wild card, or another replacement ride, could happen pretty soon.
Ever since he first entered the MotoGP class, Marc Márquez has owned the Circuit of the Americas at Austin. In 2013, in just his second ever MotoGP event, he was fastest in all but two practice sessions, then went on to win the race, becoming the youngest ever MotoGP winner in the process. A year later, he was fastest in every session, and extended his advantage over his teammate in the race, winning by over four seconds. The gap to third that year was demoralizing: Andrea Dovizioso crossed the line nearly 21 seconds after Márquez had taking victory.
With two one-two victories for Honda in two years at Austin, does anyone else really stand a chance? Surprisingly, it seems there might be. Much has changed over the past year: the renaissance at Ducati, the improvements at Yamaha, both of the bike and, more significantly, of the riders. And with Dani Pedrosa out with injury, Márquez faces the challenge from Movistar Yamaha and factory Ducati alone.
It is also easy to forget that the 2014 race was a real anomaly. First, Jorge Lorenzo took himself out of contention early. An out-of-shape Lorenzo arrived at Austin under pressure after crashing out at Qatar. He got distracted on the grid and jumped the start by a country mile, his race over even before it began. Valentino Rossi struggled with a front tire that chewed itself up, putting him out of contention almost immediately. And though the Ducatis were better than they had been before, the GP14 used in the first few races was a far cry from the much better GP14.2 which Ducati raced at the end of the year. Finally, Márquez himself was brimming with confidence, having won the first race of the season despite having broken his leg just four weeks before.